SR review: “Nina Simone: Four Women” at Northlight Theatre
Some of the usual tropes of stage biography, but Sydney Charles’s performance make it “Goddam” good
Christina Ham’s play has some of the characteristic tropes of stage biography, but Northlight’s production and Sydney Charles’s performance make it “Goddam” good
Theater review by Kris Vire
“This is a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet,” Nina Simone tells a mostly white Carnegie Hall audience in 1964. The moment comes about a minute into “Mississippi Goddam,” the song Simone wrote in response to the murder of Medgar Evars in Mississippi and the bombing that killed four little girls at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. The live recording was released as a single—though few if any radio stations at the time would dare play it—marking a turn toward political activism for the one-of-a-kind musician.
Christina Ham’s 2016 play-with-music Nina Simone: Four Women could be read as an attempt to write the show that contains “Mississippi Goddam.” But for all the context Ham provides about the song’s genesis, the song itself doesn’t feel much like a show tune in the context of this script’s curious blend of diegesis and mimesis.
As the title suggests, Ham also draws from another of Simone’s political songs. The playwright’s conceit has Simone herself visiting the blasted 16th Street Church the day after the bombing, as riots rage in the streets outside, seeking inspiration for the song that will become “Mississippi Goddam.” While there, she receives three visitors, each an expanded embodiment of one of the African-American archetypes represented in Simone’s “Four Women.”
Sarah, also referred to as “Auntie,” is a domestic worker who worries about the civil rights movement upsetting the apple cart. Sephronia is a young, light-skinned woman who’s active in the movement. Sweet Thing makes her way in the world as a prostitute. Nina herself eventually identifies with final member of the song’s taxonomy, the angry and toughened Peaches.
Ham’s concept is clearly a fantasia; she’s not asking us to accept any of this as literal. Even so, her script suffers a bit from the same Wikipedia Syndrome that often plagues biographical works on stage; when a character mentions Simone’s cover of the Gershwins’ “I Loves You Porgy,” Ham’s Nina replies, “It was my first top 10 hit,” as if that’s a perfectly natural place to insert such a factoid.
Adding the three other women relieves some of the stiltedness that frequently manifests in biographical solo shows. But for each of them, Ham is trying to flesh out a character that Simone’s lyrics described in 42 words or less; the expanded versions rarely feel like human beings rather than collections of givens and mouthpieces for authorial points of view.
(Even the silent accompanist, who never speaks his mind but always knows when and which song to start playing, feels like a trope of this subgenre; here he’s embodied by music director Daniel Riley.)
If Ham’s script has its shortcomings, though, Northlight’s production is a thrill. Director Kenneth L. Roberson has both a top-tier design team and an incredible cast at his disposal. On the design front, Christopher Rhoton’s gorgeously damaged set and Lee Fiskness’s moody lighting effortlessly establish the world.
As for the cast, you could hardly go too far in praising what Deanna Reed-Foster (Sarah), Ariel Richardson (Sephronia) and Melanie Brezill (Sweet Thing) add to the bare scaffolding they’re given. But Nina Simone belongs, appropriately, to its Nina Simone. In the title role, Sydney Charles achieves something remarkable, evoking the iconic singer in her speech patterns, singing voice, even her posture, but all without venturing into mere impersonation.
Across an unbroken 100 minutes onstage and a dozen or so beloved songs, this is Sydney Charles’s Nina Simone, and it’s more truthful than any paint-and-prosthetics biopic could ever hope to achieve.
Nina Simone: Four Women
Northlight Theatre (9501 Skokie Rd, Skokie). By Christina Ham. Directed by Kenneth L. Roberson.
Cast: Sydney Charles (Nina Simone), Deanna Reed-Foster (Sarah), Ariel Richardson (Sephronia), Melanie Brezill (Sweet Thing), Daniel Riley (Sam Waymon).
Designers: Christopher Rhoton (scenic), Michael Alan Stein (costumes), Lee Fiskness (lighting), Lindsay Jones (sound), Darius Smith (musical arrangements), Daniel Riley (music direction).
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes; no intermission. Through March 2. Tickets ($30–$88) at northlight.org.
Photographs by Michael Brosilow.
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